This week proved to be a seismic one in Britain’s fight against Covid-19. For the first time in our history, Britain is on a government enforced national lockdown and our personal freedoms have been restricted in a way not seen since World War Two. As virus associated deaths rose to over 570, including a 21 year-old patient who had no underlying health issues, Britain has had to take extraordinary measures to tackle this unprecedented public health emergency. If repurposing London’s ExCeL centre as a 500 bed hospital to help bolster the NHS’s capacity wasn’t enough, by Friday it was announced that Prince Charles, the prime minister and the heath secretary had tested positive for the virus. Here is everything you need to know about the week Britain was told to stay at home.
In a dramatic end to the week, on Friday morning Downing Street announced that Boris Johnson had tested positive for Covid-19. Later, news came in that health secretary Matt Hancock had tested positive as well. These announcements followed the news that Prince Charles was also suffering from the virus, and brought home the reality of why the government introduced such drastic measures to protect public health this week.
On Monday night a staggering 27 million people watched Boris Johnson’s address to the nation announcing a nationwide lockdown. This made the broadcast one of the most viewed programmes in British history, as the prime minister announced that people may only leave their homes for food, one form of exercise per day and work if absolutely necessary. The restrictions will be in place for an initial three week period, although it seems likely that this will be extended as the rate of infection peaks in the next few weeks.
The announcement of a lockdown is strongly supported by the public, with a YouGov poll finding that 93% were in favour, with only 4% opposed. However, despite this wide support the move is a stunning reversal of the government’s position from only a few weeks ago. In an article published in The Sunday Times, it was reported that at a private function in February, Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had outlined that the government wanted to pursue maximum herd immunity amongst the public, and had commented ‘and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. The comment was seen as an example of how slowly the government reacted to the scale of the crisis, and given that we can expect a full inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, Cummings has potentially left himself exposed to criticism.
Despite the move towards more concrete action to tackle the spread of the virus, there are still questions that need to be answered. For example, construction workers have still been allowed to work although it is hard to imagine how it will be possible for them to follow social distancing guidelines. Additionally, questions were raised about support for the self-employed which forced the chancellor to announce extra measures on Thursday evening.
Help is on the way (in June…)
In yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that self-employed people would be entitled to a government grant totalling 80% of their average profits, up to £2,500 a month. The scheme is similar in nature to the one announced for traditional employees, who are entitled to 80% of their salary from the government if they are furloughed by their employer.
However, unlike the employee grant, self-employed people will only receive the money in June in the form of backdated payments. In the meantime, workers are encouraged to apply for Universal Credit, but with The Guardian reporting website queues of 145,000 people, it is unlikely that the self-employed will be able to access the funds they need quickly. While many welcomed the scheme, others such as Labour MP David Lammy stated that the self-employed not receiving support until June was a ‘slap in the face’. Others such as the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, put the case for a £1,000 up-front blanket payment to tide people over.
The government is likely to come under increased pressure to make the funds available to the self-employed earlier, and while it has moved quickly to implement the job retention scheme for traditional employees, the uniqueness of the support offered to the self-employed may mean that increasing the capacity of Universal Credit call lines is the easiest way to solve this problem in the short term.
Test, test, test
While the Treasury was busy focusing on support for the self-employed, Public Health England was announcing that mass home testing for the virus would be made available ‘to millions, within days’. The test will comprise of a finger prick that will analyse blood and be able to inform patients whether they have already had COVID-19 and therefore have developed at least a short term immunity. The government later backtracked on the comments that the tests would be made available imminently, as more time would be needed to ascertain their accuracy. Additionally, it also clarified that first priority would go to frontline NHS workers rather than the general public.
While it is undoubtedly great news that such tests are in development, the need to clarify and confirm information has become symptomatic of the government’s communications output during this crisis. While the situation is ever changing, the government has come under criticism for a lack of clarity in their messaging, something the government has sought to rectify with the rehiring of election supremo Isaac Levido (of ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan fame) to enhance its communications campaign. We have already seen a more concerted effort by the government to simplify the message sent to the public, and the straightforward advice to stay at home, is evidence of this. With Levido on board you should expect more of this strategy, and further improvements to the government’s messaging too.
With the news dominated by Covid-19 updates, you could be forgiven for not realising that the Labour leadership race is due to end next week. As parliament rose early for the Easter break, this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) saw the Labour leader’s last appearance at the dispatch box, before his successor is announced next Saturday.
Corbyn has led Labour since 2015, presiding over two general election defeats, including Labour’s worst since 1935 and the Brexit referendum. Most of Corbyn’s major successes were internal, having boosted Labour’s membership rates to 580,000, the largest membership of any party in Europe. He also moved the centre of gravity within the party and political discourse to the left, with policies such as abolishing tuition fees and mass nationalisation of industry being included in the 2019 manifesto.
However, Corbyn is more likely to be remembered for the anti-Semitism scandal that engulfed the party and led to an ongoing investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as well as his refusal to offer a coherent position on Brexit that ended up satisfying neither remainers nor leavers, leaving Labour to suffer its fourth election defeat in a row.
Given that the country will remain in lockdown for at least two more weeks, and likely a lot longer, the most important next step will be the release of more widespread testing. If the country is able to determine how many people have already contracted the virus, this will allow those with immunity to return to work sooner.
The government also predicts that the number of UK cases is expected to rise and peak in the next two to three weeks, meaning things are likely to get worse before they get better. The impact of the lockdown will also take time to become obvious, and it is impossible to rule out further measures to enforce self-isolation, if the government determines that not enough people are following the new rules.